SPIEGEL Interview with Israeli Historian Saul Friedländer 'The Holocaust Won't Disappear'

Israeli historian Saul Friedländer -- winner of the 2007 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to be presented this week at the Frankfurt Book Fair -- spoke to SPIEGEL about the importance of victims' accounts in researching the Holocaust and the failure of efforts in Germany to draw a line under the issue.


The Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historian Saul Friedländer argues that attempts to draw a line under the Holocaust in Germany are bound to fail.
DPA

The Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historian Saul Friedländer argues that attempts to draw a line under the Holocaust in Germany are bound to fail.

SPIEGEL: Professor Friedländer, in contrast to other accounts of the history of the Holocaust, in your book "Nazi Germany and the Jews, the Years of Extermination," you give us ample opportunity to hear from the victims through diaries and letters. Why didn't you limit your focus to the history of the perpetrators?

Saul Friedländer: Because that's not enough. We basically still needed a book that went beyond an analysis of German politics and included the environment -- in other words, the churches, the elites, the general population in Germany and in other countries -- and incorporated the voices of the victims, of those who were murdered.

SPIEGEL: Were you interested in the educational effect here, since the horror becomes more vivid this way?

Friedländer: No, many aspects only become clear from an examination of the victims' sources, not from official documents. For instance, the fact that the Jews in Germany and Western Europe didn't know what was going on -- and in Eastern Europe they didn't want to believe what they saw. Take my parents -- after their deportation from France in 1942, a friend wrote to my grandmother, who lived in Stockholm, to say that my parents had been sent to Germany or to a Jewish reservation in Poland. He had no idea that they had been murdered.

SPIEGEL: Would it have changed anything if the victims had known what was going on?

Friedländer: It does makes a considerable difference whether the Nazis murdered millions of people who didn't know what was going to happen to them or killed people who had already assumed the worst.

SPIEGEL: Because it explains why the extermination process went so smoothly?

Friedländer: Yes.

SPIEGEL: The opposite position was held by the recently deceased Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg. "The best way to grasp the reality of the situation," he said, "is to reconstruct events from the perspective of the perpetrators."

Friedländer: I have great respect for Hilberg. He was the classic expert on the machinery of extermination. But he only worked with documents left by the perpetrators and thought that the victims had gone to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter. If you read between the lines, you can even sense the rage with which he writes about the Jews' lack of resistance. But they simply didn't know what was happening.

SPIEGEL: Are there other new things that we can learn from the victims' accounts?

Friedländer: Only these accounts can attest to the behavior of the murderers. Elsa Binder from Stanislavóv in Galicia, for example, wrote in her diary in 1941 about how "Einsatzgruppen" (paramilitary death squads operated by the SS) murdered her friend Tamara and their friend Ester, who was known as Esterka: "I hope that death was kind to her and took her quickly. And that she didn't have to suffer like … Esterka who, as we saw, was strangled." Thus we see that the Einsatzgruppen consisted of men who did more than aim rifles at seemingly anonymous crowds of people. The strangling of a young girl actually reveals the sadism of the perpetrators, about which we still know so little.

SPIEGEL: How was the diary recovered?

Friedländer: It was found in a ditch next to the road that leads to the cemetery in Stanislavóv: The circumstances surrounding Elsa's death are not known. And we can deduce something else from the victims' perspective: in addition to Jewish councils and Jewish religious communities, there were also families, circles of friends and individuals. The success of their strategies to avoid deportation is -- from a statistical point of view -- perhaps insignificant, but it is a small chapter in the overall history of the period. For instance, I'm only here today because my parents hid me in a Catholic monastery school.

SPIEGEL: In other words, your emphasis on the victims' perspective stems from your own experience?

Friedländer: Of course. That actually shouldn't be the case with historians, and the former director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, Martin Broszat, even said in 1987 that Jews were incapable of writing a rational historical history of the Third Reich because they were biased -- as if a former member of the Hitler Youth or a party member like Broszat could conduct research without any biographical baggage. That upset me a great deal back then, but I've encountered this attitude time and again when the issue comes up with German colleagues.

SPIEGEL: You've been researching the Holocaust for decades. Are you expecting many more new discoveries to emerge from research?

Friedländer: There probably won't be any major changes to the big picture.

SPIEGEL: But aren't there considerable differences of opinion among historians over the question of why the Holocaust occured?

Friedländer: You are alluding to what I call the "new functionalism," in other words, the position taken by my colleagues Ulrich Herbert, Götz Aly and Christian Gerlach. They believe that, for logistical or populist reasons, the Germans tended to pursue materialistic objectives and originally did not intend to murder the Jews at all. These scholars maintain, for example, that the population in Russia was killed, including Jews, because it was necessary to feed the Wehrmacht, but they say that this was by no means the main goal.

SPIEGEL: What objections do you have to this?

Friedländer: For me the ideology of the Third Reich and Hitler is of far greater importance. In the first known piece of writing from Adolf Hitler that deals with a political issue, he warned of the danger that the Jews posed to the German people. That was back in 1919. And his political testament from the bunker in 1945 contains the message that the Germans should continue to fight against the worldwide plague of Judaism. We can thus observe a continuity of fanatical anti-Semitism.

SPIEGEL: Why didn't the Nazis kill the German Jews back in the 1930s?

Friedländer: I'm sure that Hitler did not pursue a plan to murder the Jews from the very beginning. At first, the goal was rather to isolate them from society, remove their means of economic livelihood, and force them to leave Germany.

SPIEGEL: And why did the Holocaust happen?

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